In February 1829, a Tehran mob furious with the loss of Iran’s northern territories to Russia attacked the Russian embassy. Ambassador Alexander Griboyedov, a noted playwright and poet, and his staff defended the building determinedly for hours but were eventually overwhelmed and shot to death. Griboyedov’s head was put on show at a kebab seller’s stall.
If this grisly incident was the lowest point in their bilateral ties, Russia’s use of an Iranian airbase for bombing raids in Syria announced last week is one of the highest. The return of Moscow’s influence to the Middle East is an unwelcome development for other regional states, and for those who depend on these for secure energy supplies. But authorities in Tehran would also be wise to beware of their new ally’s motives.
As Ayatollah Khomeini stated in 1980, his new regime was opposed to the Soviet Union just as much as the United States: “I announce my support for all movements, fronts and groups which are fighting in order to escape from the claws of the eastern or western superpowers”. The access granted by Iran to the Hamadan airbase is the first time since the 1979 revolution that foreign military forces have openly operated from its territory.
Iran’s revolution and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war led to the second great oil shock. For Jimmy Carter, the energy crisis was both one of the leitmotifs of his presidency, and a contributor to his defeat in the 1980 election.
In his state of the union address earlier that year, alarmed by the overthrow of the shah and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he stated the Gulf’s importance for oil exports. His speech established the Carter Doctrine, that “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the [Arabian] Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force”.
Today the US is weary of overseas wars, and is lulled by its own revolution in shale oil and gas into dangerous complacency about Russia’s Middle Eastern role, and about global energy security in general. Still a major oil importer, America’s allies, Europe and Japan, are even more so. For the Middle East to again be a focus of great power competition, as it was until 1990, is dangerous for regional countries and their customers.
So too for China, which obtains more than half of its oil from the Gulf – a US boot on its windpipe is a dangerous vulnerability. In February, Beijing started building its first overseas military base, in Djibouti. But even worse would be open conflict in the region, or an over-mighty role for Russia. China, which prefers to diversify its supplies, already relies on Russia for a tenth of its oil imports, gets half of its imported gas from Central Asia, and has concluded further large gas deals with Moscow.
Iran’s shared geopolitical interests with Russia, in propping up their murderous Syrian client and challenging the US, are obvious. Its economic ties are much weaker. The countries’ trade was just US$1.2 billion last year – Iran-UAE trade was $17bn – and Russia does not need Iran’s oil or gas. And from Griboyedov to the 1941-46 Soviet occupation of northern Iran amid pressure for an oil concession, the Iranians have been wary of Russian aims.
Russian companies have some commercial interest in Iran’s oil, but the Kremlin’s aim has been more to delay, diminish and divert Iranian hydrocarbons to prevent their becoming a major competitor.
So Tehran’s alliance with Moscow is one of convenience only, and faces deep mutual suspicions. Nevertheless, a greater Russian military and diplomatic role in the Middle East is a worrying development. Threatened already from within, the region and its energy resources do not need to be the target of further conflicts.
Robin Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis.
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